What’s the point of preaching?

As a preacher I often make the mistake of getting stuck into the text and making sure I am faithful to it, explaining, it etc. that I forget what I am aiming to do.  What can come across is that the point of preaching is merely explain the passage.  But that’s not the point is it?

The point is to change people.  Isn’t it?

To change their minds, their hearts, their lives.  But the next mistake that preachers often make is that we have a list of three application points of “this is what you should do now” and then we wonder why people think Christianity is a form of legalism!  We are working against ourselves.  So let me introduce you to a quote from Richard Sibbes about how we should go about transforming people’s lives:

The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight.  The Spirit that makes us new creatures, and stirs us up to behold this servant, it is a transforming beholding…A man cannot look upon the love of God and of Christ in the gospel, but it will change him to be like God and Christ.  For how can we see Christ, and God in Christ but we shall see how God hates sin, and this will transform us to hate it  as God doth, who hated it so that it could not be expiated but with the blood of Christ, God-man.  So, seeing the holiness of God in it, it will transform us to be holy.  When we see the love of God in the gospel, and the love of Christ giving himself for us, this will transform us to love God {1}

Here is Sibbes point: if you want to transform people’s lives (which is the point of preaching) then show them Christ.  Sure, have your three point application, but if you are not showing them Jesus then you are simply preaching legalism!

If you are a preacher when was the last time the application point was: How great is Jesus?


{1} Richard Sibbes, “A Description of Christ” quoted in Reeves, Michael. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012. p92.


What do I pray for?

How does one prepare to preach?  I have been thinking about that a lot lately and there are some more posts to come about reflecting on how I prepare so I can work out how to do it better.  Preaching is about the Word of God, but I think it has to start with prayer.  Someone asked me once, “If you have 5 minutes left before you preach, do you look over your notes or do you pray?”  I still don’t really know what the answer to that should be.   But I do know that prayer has to be an essential part of preparation throughout the whole process.

What do we pray?  Here is the prayer I use all the time.  I know using formulated prayers is not the vogue, but this prayer articulates what I need better than I can.

My Master God,
I am expected to preach today,
but go weak and needy to my task;

Yet I long that people will be edified with divine truth,
that an honest testimony will be given for you.

Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and passion.

Present to my view things pertinent to my subject,
will fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a deep emotion to accompany the words I speak,
and grace to apply them to people’s consciences.

Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.

Help me to offer a testimony for yourself,
and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting your mercy.

Give me freedom to open up the sorrows of your people,
and to set before them comforting consolations.

Give your power to the truth preached,
and awaken the attention of my slothful audience.

May your people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted,
and help me to use the strongest arguments
drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings,
that people might be made holy.

I myself need your support, comfort, strength, holiness,
that I might be a pure channel of your grace,
and be able to do something for you.

Give me then refreshment among your people,
and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way,
or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer,
or be harsh in treating Christ’s death, its design and end,
from lack of warmth and fervency.

And keep me in tune with you as I do this work.


How to Buy a Commentary

So you have just been given a leadership position or small group to care for.  You know the book of the Bible you are going to work through, you know you need resources, but how do you find the right one?

There are lots of different types of commentaries: exegetical, technical, devotional, application, etc.  But they usually end up in one of two categories. They can be incredibly helpful or they can be a great waste of money. There are lots out there so how do you decide which one to buy?

1. Don’t trust a series or an author just because you have used them before

If you have used a series or an author before they may be helpful again, but not necessarily.  Don’t work on the assumption that just because one is good the rest are too.  Commentary series will be aiming to do different things.  Tyndale do a great job of exegetical commentaries. New International series, Pillar and Baker are good technical ones but different ones will be better than others.  NIV Application and BST are good applications series.  But these are guides not rules. Don’t assume.

2. Get someone else to pay your dumb tax

I recently heard someone say “dumb tax always has to be paid, but it doesn’t have to be paid by you”. There are lots of other people out there who have already shopped.  Some people have already wasted their money on bad commentaries.  Ask around for what is good.

It’s important you ask people who are doing a similar task to you.  I once asked an academic and his advice for a commentary would have been perfect….if I were lecturing at postgraduate level, not preaching to a Sunday congregation.   In fact I did this recently and someone suggested instead of buying a commentary on the book refer to another book I happen to have in my library that was even more helpful for theological insights into the book.

3. Do the test case

The job of a good commentary is to save you time.  So you need to test to see if it will.   Start with a passage of the book you are looking at.  Work out do you need to know about this passage, is it theology or application or role in Biblical theology?  Create a list of questions that took you time to work out to use to see if this commentary will help you with the rest of the book.

Once you have worked over your passage go to a bookshop, library or get onto Google books and try few out.  Here are a few questions that you should be able to answer using the test case:

  • What sort of commentary do you need?  One with more exegetical information, more theological contribution or more dealing with application issues?
  • Did it answer your questions or skate over the issues?
  • Was there information that you missed in your working over the passage that is in the commentary?
  • Was it giving information that was actually helpful for you to preach or teach the passage or was it full of things that would be only helpful in a Bible trivia competition?
  • Is it worth the money or does a cheaper one do the same job? (Just because it is expensive does not mean it is useful to you).

Do you need a commentary?

I know there will be at least one person gearing up with a comment that we shouldn’t even need commentaries.  They are written by people who can be wrong.  We should be able to do all the work that a commentator does without relying on them.

Both assertions are true.  Commentators can be wrong, we should be able to do get to the same point as them.  But as I said above the purpose of a commentary is to save you time.  The problem with starting from scratch is that it would take hours and hours of time to get to the same point that a commentary does and that time could be used loving God’s people.  A commentary writer has taken time to develop a resource so it will help you steward your time better, at least that was what they were supposed to do which is why you need to be discerning in buying one.

Do you need to agree with a commentary?

There are lots of commentaries that have been published with different points of views and presuppositions, not all of which you will share.   If you are getting to know a book for the first time it is good to have a trustworthy commentary to guide you through the book, with presuppositions you share, so you can get to know the book well.

But if you have been doing this for a while and it is a book you know well, having a commentator you don’t agree with can force you to make decisions that you have previously ignored and will help you get to know the nuances of the book.

How do you buy a commentary?  What have I missed?

Preaching: Analog or Digital?

Anyone growing up in the 80s and 90s will know the pain as we moved from analog to digital.  We had to throw our our beloved record and tape collections to replace them with shiny new CDs and later iTunes playlists. Why did we do it?  Digital music is clearer and crisper, it doesn’t have the noise that analog does (and digital stores better).  But some can argue that the old school analogue is warmer and the noise is more authentic.

In this picture, you can see the difference between an analog signal and a digital signal. The analog signal is smooth and captures all of the nuance of the original signal. The digital signal takes samples at certain points of the signal and replicates them to give only the high points and low points. What’s missing is the nuance.  The point is that digital thinks only in terms of ‘on’ and ‘off’, you are one or the other.  Analog works in terms of the range between ‘on’ and ‘off’.
Should preaching be digital or analog?
The case for digital can be made in that we are preaching to Christians and non-Christian.  One is either one or the other.  You are either on or off, following Jesus or not.  How we apply the Bible will differ depending the person Is Christian or not.  Right?  Perhaps not.
There is a decision that Christians make when they decide to follow Jesus. But that decision can be like the decision a captain makes to change direction of a large ship. The decision can be made but the effects can take some time to be seen.
The reality is that digital is not the best way of seeing  people. Christians may may have made the big decision of following Jesus but there are usually thousands of little conversions that still need to be made.
To some degree, same can be said of non Christians. Though they are still to make the decision of committing their life to Jesus, some of their life has already started to change, some of those small conversions have already started to happen. They are at church, they are investigating Jesus, etc.  Already the Spirit is at work.
Does this mean I don’t think the fundamental call for someone to change their life and follow Jesus shouldn’t happen?  Of course not, but this cannot be the only call for conversion.  Are we calling for all our people to convert all their lives?
Yes still the fundamental call for life repentance but we need to preach for the thousand of decisions that still need to be made.

Church Around Food

Over January we had a series on food.  The reason we did food was that I think it is a big theme throughout the Bible and it is also something that people in Sydney spend a lot of time enjoying, thinking about and cooking.

What we were aiming to do:

Have the teaching and what we were doing interact.  We didn’t just want to talk about food, but have the food in front of us.  We wanted people to experience what we were talking about directly.

What we did:

We changed our format dramatically.  We moved our time to a dinner schedule.  We had dinner together, we had a talk and then prayer at the table.  The whole thing was to be very informal.  Kids were to be involved and have an activity sheet during the talk.  At first I had planned to speak on the whole Bible’s view of food, but quickly realised it was going to be too large.  Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, helped me to focus on meals in Luke, but even then there was a lot of editing to be done.
On the whole, the thing looked very good on paper.

What worked:

We had a couple who were passionate about hospitality who arranged the food.  The food was great.  The meals were arranged around the talks – we had a picnic when we were talking about feeding the 5,000 and a passover when we were talking about the Lord’s Supper.  All of this gave us a ‘feel’ of what it would have been like to experience the meals we were talking about.  The new format only went for 3 weeks and any longer we would have lost too much momentum and it would have been hard to swap back.

What didn’t work:

Firstly, it became apparent that there was far too much material to deal with.  While there was a lot of editing done, there needed to be more.  The format didn’t really allow me to do a full 30 min talk.  It needed to be a sharp 20 min talk with one precise point.
Secondly, I think people had some trouble adjusting to the different format.  Number were down as we expected over January but I got the feeling that people felt they could be late or not turn up at all because ‘it wasn’t really church’.
Finally,  while we had some activities for the kids, I think we needed to work harder on this.  They quickly became bored and to some extent distracting.
The bottom line is that the series worked, but not as well as I had have hoped.